The shadowy men on motorcycles who were behind the assassinations of four Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years were Mossad agents, not foreign mercenaries, according to a new book on the history of Israeli intelligence services.
The book, co-authored by veteran Israeli intelligence correspondent Yossi Melman and CBS journalist Dan Raviv, is called Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, (Levant Book). It was published this week.
“It’s very hard to assume that such a delicate, sensitive mission was carried out by hired guns or mercenaries,” Melman told The Jerusalem Post in an interview based on insights from the book.
He added that Iran “is not a hermetically sealed state. The agents operating in Iran face the highest level of danger.
These people are endangering their lives more so than on missions in say, Lebanon, which is not a police state.”
According to Raviv’s chapters in the book, in its pursuit to delay Iran’s military nuclear program, Israeli intelligence services are working with ethnic minorities in or around Iran, such as Kurds and Baluchis, as well as the Iranian Mujihadeen-e Khalq (MEK) organization, which is dedicated to the overthrow of the current Iranian regime.
“There is undoubtedly cooperation,” Melman said. The MEK’s 2002 announcement of an Iranian heavy water reactor at Arak and a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz came directly from Israeli intelligence, he added.
“They work together. But in the most sensitive missions, it has to be Israeli agents,” Melman said based on what Raviv wrote.
Melman, who currently provides commentary on the intelligence world for the Walla Hebrew news site, said that the operations in Iran have placed the Tehran government in a tight spot.
“Iran is under pressure, as their botched terror attacks in Georgia, India and Thailand have shown,” he said. “[Israeli] agents are working in Tehran as if it was their home. Iranian counter-intelligence are not managing to secure the scientists.
Iran decided to seek revenge at any price.”
Despite the successful assassinations, “This technique of hitting the scientists has worn itself out. It won’t stop the nuclear program. It is one tool in the box,” Melman said.
In fact, he argued, although the assassinations inflicted some damage on Tehran’s nuclear program, they should be seen as just one component of a much wider effort to convince Iran to give up its program.
That effort includes sanctions, sabotaging industrial equipment and computer viruses.
“The assassinations are also psychological pressure, to tell Iranian scientists, your regime is not protecting you, think twice before working for them,” Melman said. “The message to nuclear scientists is, if you care about your family, do theoretical science.”
Melman believes Tehran could eventually give up its nuclear ambitions, but said this would only occur if the regime was “threatened from the inside.” He highlighted a protest letter by Iran’s domestic paramilitary force, the Basij – which has been crucial in repressing the Iranian opposition – as an example of growing cracks inside the Islamic Republic. The letter asked Iran’s government to focus more on domestic economic needs and less on foreign issues.
The hope behind covert operations is to delay Iran’s atomic program long enough for the regime to decide to suspend it altogether, he added.
Both ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan – who apparently oversaw much of what occurred in Iran – and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin have warned against a current military strike on Iran, with Diskin going as far as accusing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of being “messianic.”
“I don’t like that expression,” Melman said, adding that he wondered whether Dagan and Diskin themselves “might be driven by a messianic sense of mission.”
“Dagan is not against an attack, but thinks the covert measures will delay things and that the US will act if necessary,” he said.
The new book takes a wide look at the history of Israeli intelligence, and touches on recent events such as the alleged Israeli airstrike on a Syrian uranium enrichment facility in 2007.
During deliberations ahead of the strike, Melman quotes Raviv as saying in a chapter about Syria, that Barak argued that there was enough time to wait with the attack, causing amazement among many in the defense community.
“In Syria, there was no time.
As soon as radioactive material goes in the facility, it cannot be bombed,” he said.
Melman also attempts to do away with the misconception that the Mossad is an organization dedicated to killing enemies of the state, saying that since the founding of Israel in 1948, it did not assassinate more than 50 individuals. “It is mostly about intelligence gathering,” he said.
“The Mossad is known in the world because of its mythology.
It captures the imagination.
But there are other intelligence organizations in Israel with larger budgets, such as Military Intelligence, and its signal intelligence collections 8200 Unit, as well as its Special Operations unit,” Melman said.
“To think that it’s all about the Mossad is a misconception,” he added.
Spies Against Armageddon will be published in Hebrew in Israel next week by Yediot Aharonot Books.